Bob Beckwith, the Fireman at Ground Zero

February 08, 2024

I first saw him on Friday, Sept. 14, 2001, at Ground Zero in New York. He was medium height, thin, wearing jeans and a blue shirt with a breathing mask hung around his neck and a fireman’s helmet bearing New York City Fire Department Company 164’s emblem on his head.

Bob Beckwith stood with two others atop a wrecked firetruck, flattened by debris from the World Trade Center, its battered frame covered in rubble and dirt. 

Bob was 69, a firefighter for three decades who had been retired for seven years when the planes smashed into the Twin Towers. He watched the attacks on a hospital waiting room TV as his grandson—hit by a car while riding his bike to school—was being treated.

For three days Bob saw the recovery efforts unfold on television until he couldn’t take it anymore. He grabbed his helmet, drove to Manhattan, talked his way onto Ground Zero, and went to work, pulling rubble from the wreckage as rescue teams searched for survivors.

The afternoon I first saw him, Bob had climbed onto the ruined firetruck to catch a glimpse of President George W. Bush’s visit to Ground Zero. As a White House aide, I was looking for where the president could speak to the crowd. As one of the three men jumped off the truck, I realized Bob’s vantage point might do. I asked him and the remaining man to jump up and down to show their perch was safe. Both reluctantly did; the truck looked steady enough. I told them to stay there, that someone might need help getting up. As I turned around, the second man disappeared off the truck. Only Bob remained.

The rest is history. The president clambered onto the truck. Bob realized who he’d helped pull up and tried to leave, thinking he should get out of the way. Mr. Bush asked him where he was going and told him to stay. The president fumbled with a bullhorn; someone yelled “We can’t hear you.” The president, his arm draped around Bob’s shoulder, replied: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”

When Bob returned to his home in Baldwin, N.Y., that night, he assumed no one would believe he’d met the president. Not quite. Neighbors waited in the twilight to greet Bob with lit candles and patriotic songs.

No one ordered retired firefighters to report to Ground Zero that week. But Bob showed up, just as ordinary Americans have done in urgent moments for our country since its founding. They’ve given comfort to those in need, overcome challenges from man and nature, and defended our nation and our liberties, with their lives if need be.

Born in Queens in 1932, part of the generation that experienced the Great Depression and World War II, Bob served as a Navy boatswain mate before joining the fire department. Married to Barbara for 67 years, he was father of six, grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of two. He died Monday at 91.

Since 9/11, this quiet, generous, self-effacing man traveled America raising funds for families of firefighters and police officers who had suffered an injury or died, especially for families of burn victims. It was never about him but the heroism and sacrifice of others. Former Rep. Pete King, his friend these past two decades, said that as recently as December as Bob battled cancer, he told stories about comrades, their bravery and sacrifice, not his. That was Bob’s gracious humility.

Read More at the WSJ

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